Seeing the god Pan

NFTs, the question of value, and the shadow digital economy

In the opening scene of the 1894 fantasy-horror novella The Great God Pan, by Welsh author and occult mystic Arthur Machen, a prototypical mad scientist named Dr. Raymond explains to his friend the purpose of his latest experiment:

Look about you, Clarke. You see the mountain, and hill following after hill, as wave on wave, you see the woods and orchards, the fields of ripe corn, and the meadows reaching to the reed-beds by the river. You see me standing here beside you, and hear my voice; but I tell you that all these things — yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet — I say that all these are but dreams and shadows: the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these "chases in Arras, dreams in a career," beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know, Clarke, that you and I shall see it lifted this very night from before another's eyes. You may think all this strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan.

In true 19th century gothic fashion, the way Dr. Raymond intends to enact his daring vision of truth is by performing a kind of primitive lobotomy on a girl named Mary, in the hopes it will allow her to see this world beyond. Mary is rendered a “hopeless idiot” by the procedure.

Or is she? The rest of the novella concerns the life of a woman named Helen Vaughan, around whom inexplicable events seem to coalesce. As a child, Helen drives several of her young friends to madness, and is spotted at twilight playing in the fields around her home with a “strange naked man”, who the narrator cannot describe. Later, a man dies of “sheer, awful terror” after seeing something in Helen’s home. Later still, after Helen arrives in London following a prolonged absence, a number of well-heeled, seemingly normal men go insane or kill themselves after having sex with her1. When she is confronted, she undergoes a number of bizarre transformations — between human and beast, woman and man, single and multiple entities — then turns into a bubbling sludge and dies.

Sorry, but I’m going to spoil this 126-year-old novel. The twist at the end is that Helen is in fact the daughter of Mary, who did see the god Pan (a more literal phrase than was originally suggested) thanks to Dr. Raymond’s experiment — and ended up procreating with him.

Machen and his works have been largely forgotten by most people, but his legacy is visible in much speculative fiction today. H.P. Lovecraft named him as one of the four "modern masters" of supernatural horror, and Jorge Luis Borges cited Machen as an influence on him — and therefore magical realism more broadly. Much literature or film which deals with other worlds hidden behind reality, amoral entities and forces beyond humanity’s ken, and the uneasy but symbiotic relationship between science and magic owes Machen a debt, either directly or through his many imitators.


Why I am talking about a piece of occult fiction from before last century? I recently reread The Great God Pan for the first time in years, and it felt oddly appropriate to our epoch of high weirdness, when beyond ‘the glamour and the vision’ of our lives lies a shadow world unmoored from reality and the rational laws we like to believe govern us. And, as happened when Dr. Raymond made an incision in young Mary’s brain, that world beyond the veil seems to be bleeding into our own, intermixing in all sorts of strange ways.

In fact, I went more or less straight from reading an ebook of Pan to reading this ESPN story about NBA’s Top Shots, the blockchain-backed digital assets which have recently caught the attention of the world at large thanks to the eye-watering sums of money fans have been paying for them. Here’s writer Brian Windhorst:

In the basic sense, Top Shot is like a trading card. Its users buy, sell and trade video clips of players called "Moments." They can be bought in packs and opened (starting at $9) just like traditional trading cards where the contents are a surprise. Or they can be bought individually in a wide range of specialty collections aimed to create exclusivity. The collectibles are then stored in virtual wallets.

These are obviously not exclusive assets as a normal person might understand them, in the sense that the purchaser does not ‘own’ the broadcast rights to the clips, and can do nothing with them but keep them in their digital wallets or sell them on to someone else. These videos have been transformed into merchandise alchemically through the blockchain, artificially limited supply, and the belief of those who partake in the market. One Top Shot, a LeBron James clip, sold last week for $208,000.

Top Shots are just one example of a new generation of digital assets called non-fungible tokens (or NFTs) for short, which use the decentralised blockchain ledgers to prove ownership and provide transaction histories. There are plenty of examples of NFTs, of which Top Shots is the most notable, including other digital collectibles, art, and even virtual real estate.

The NFT market grew by 299% in 2020, per one analysis, to a total estimated value of $250 million. The ultimate endpoint of financialisation — which creates intricate webs of abstractions and instruments around fungible or otherwise value-creating assets — is that we don’t even really need the assets themselves. We just need a black box everyone agrees is an asset, and treats accordingly.

It quickly descends into a kind of parodic expression of Baudrillard’s hyperreality: Australian ‘meme artist’ Lushsux now sells NFT digital art recreations of his real-life street art, which were already based on memes, which in turn — more often than not — are already some discursive representation of the real. This whole weird package, selling for 65 Ethereum — or about 110,000 Australian dollars.

Over at his blog, billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban sings the praise of NFTs and other store-of-value assets, dismissing concerns that this is all just a massive collective psychosis on the basis that “valuing something we own has always been more art than science” anyway. He points to gold as a commodity which has always been more driven by ‘narrative’ than its actual utility. In fact, he says, NFTs are more similar to physical collectibles like basketball cards and other memorabilia than one might think:

With digital goods, I still have the same sense of ownership as with a physical good, and again the value is still set by supply and demand, but I have none of the hassles beyond remembering my passwords and dealing with wallets. Both of which are getting easier and easier. And the funny part, if you’re an old school physical good owner that wants to share what they own with someone else, what do they do? They take a digital picture of the item and send it or the link.

The GameStop saga in January, Cuban says, happened because of a new generation of younger retail investors who treat stocks like just another speculative asset like bitcoin2 or an NBA Top Shot, without any real regard to the supposed machinery beneath the surface. “They don’t care about Price Earnings Ratios, or NPV of future cash flows, or what the analysts say the earnings per share this quarter,” he says. “All these narratives are just sales pitches designed to sell stocks and they want to change the game and kick their ass.”

I think it goes well beyond that. Yes, financial capitalism produces value in all sorts of counterintuitive ways, and technology is disrupting our sense of value and making it easier to create and sell all sorts of abstract speculative assets. But it’s no coincidence, I think, that this shadow world is encroaching on our own lived reality more and more now.

We seem these days to be in a period of uneasy economic stasis, sitting amid bubbles which don’t pop despite repeated promises. Tech companies accrue huge userbases and skyrocket in value despite never turning an actual profit. Interest rates and wage growth remain stubbornly low, and seem guaranteed to remain that way into the future. Rock bottom inflation is baked into the system, and no one seems to agree on what might cause it to go up again, or whether it even exists anymore. Despite rolling promises that Australia’s housing market is teetering on the edge of collapse, it never does. It just flies higher, aided by policymakers who need the line to go up no matter what.

In that context, where no one seems remotely convincing when they talk about what generates ‘value’, or why anything is the way it is, it becomes much easier to imagine why people might be pumping imaginary speculative currency into ghosts and hoping they go to the moon. We’re all seeing the god Pan.


Today’s links

  • Last week’s newsletter about the Australian news media bargaining code got a bit of attention! Thanks to all who read and shared it around. I went on Slate’s tech podcast TBD to discuss it, as well as the excellent pod This Machine Kills (which is worth subscribing to). And Mediawatch on Radio New Zealand. Unfortunately, due to the fact these shows discussed The Terminal as if it were a regularly updated newsletter, I now need to regularly update it. Fuck!

  • In my post about the media bargaining code I focused pretty narrowly on the claims by the tech giants, as well as the antitrust aspect. One part I left out was about the possibility it will simply entrench the problems of surveillance capitalism — ably argued in this NYT piece from Lizzie O’Shea.

  • This is an incredibly detailed breakdown of how TikTok does its thing by Eugene Wei, a self-described “former product guy at Amazon, Hulu, Flipboard [and] Oculus". It’s the third part in a series, the first two of which sorted through the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of TikTok. But this one is most interesting if you want to understand mechanically what makes the app work, and how it executes on a broader vision for content.

  • A good interview overview about microfinance and its history from Royce Kurmelovs and Dr. Melissa Johnston. Royce’s Substack is a good follow!

  • Great story at VICE about the ‘strategic intelligence’ operation run by McDonald’s against labour activists agitating for a $15 minimum wage.

  • An oral history of The Silence of the Lambs from Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

  • Got around to reading the CJR story about Seth Abramson, the guy made famous for imagining vast Russian intelligence operations involving Donald Trump in sprawling, Pynchonian Twitter threads. Interesting thoughts about what it all means.

  • A good read on the pernicious influence of Nextdoor, which is in many ways a more dramatic threat to local newspapers than Facebook and Google are.

1

These sexual liaisons are only ever distantly alluded to, in true 19th century fashion, though the novella created a scandal on its release anyway, more or less dooming Machen’s popular literary career.

2

Some will no doubt argue that bitcoin is more than a speculative asset, but come now. Be serious.